by Paul Stickler
On the morning of Monday 27 January 1919, neighbours of Elizabeth Ridgely were concerned for her welfare as she had failed to open her corner shop in Nightingale Road, Hitchin.
In 1919, when a shopkeeper and her dog were found dead in Hitchin, Hertfordshire with brutal head injuries, there followed an extraordinary catalogue of events and a local police investigation which concluded that both had died as a result of a tragic accident.
A second investigation by Scotland Yard led to the arrest of an Irish war veteran, but the outcome was far from conclusive.
At Mrs Ridgely’s Corner is an account of a murder investigation in a county force just after the first world war.
County forces were largely ill-prepared for complex investigations and the events of January 1919 highlight the inadequacies of police investigative skills outside of the Metropolitan area of London and how ill-founded conclusions were drawn. As a result of this case, greater emphasis was made on the requirement of County forces to call in the expertise of Scotland Yard at the start of an investigation.
Constable Kirby wasn’t going to sit and do nothing while he waited for his colleagues and the doctor to arrive. This looked very much like a murder to him, he thought, as he stared at the two motionless bodies in the passageway. He’d been waiting for an opportunity like this to show that he was more able than merely patrolling the streets of Hitchin. Twenty years he had been in the Hertfordshire Constabulary and now something had turned up for him to get his teeth into. He continued in his hunt for clues and looked again at the two items lying next to the murdered woman: the cigar box and the weight. The box was bloodstained, and had no lid, but there were two unused red-top Vesta matches lying inside. A number of used matches lay on the floor close to the body. Did this tell him that whatever happened was carried out at night? It gets dark so early this time of year, he thought, as he continued to piece together what he was looking at. The weight, about three feet away from Ridgley’s head, was oblong in shape, standing upright. The inscription on the top told him it weighed four pounds and he sucked back through his teeth as he imagined the heavy object cracking down on the woman’s skull.
He moved into the living room, where the lower half of the body stretched across the threshold, the dead lady’s legs pointing towards the table in the middle of the room. Beyond the outstretched corpse the room was cluttered with china chamber pots, kettles and boxes, which contained items wrapped in brown paper, much of which was ‘bespattered with blood.’ His attention shifted to the table in the middle of the room, itself piled high with a mix of household paraphernalia, but he particularly noticed a selection of crockery, an oil lamp, a cup and saucer which appeared to have the remnants of a cup of tea, and another which contained cocoa. A quarter of a loaf of bread lay next to a full pint bottle on the table. He sniffed it and knew immediately it was beer. He remembered last May when he’d stood in the same room looking at a bottle of gin. Had she fallen over again and smashed her head on the way down? Possible, he thought. But what about the dead dog? How had that happened? He looked back at the weight on the floor and refocussed on the theory that she’d been smashed over the head.